In December 2019, Time Magazine named Greta Thunberg Time's Person of the year. The cover image of their final issue of the year featured the young woman standing on the shore, staring off into the distance, accompanied by the byline: "The Power of Youth." This momentous event brought two things to the attention of a wide audience. First, climate change has become one of the defining issues of our era. Second, the biggest leaders in this fight are young people.
None of us at Design for Change expected this when, just a few months prior, we entered into partnership with Earth Day Network to feature a Design Sprint commemorating their 50th anniversary. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans celebrated the very first Earth Day and launched a global movement that continues to raise awareness and support for environmental issues.
On our initial call, I spoke with Tracey Ritchie, a Vice President at Earth Day Network, and Kira Heeschen, their education coordinator. We discussed many of the issues facing planet Earth and decided to focus on the impact of single-use plastics, specifically focusing on their impact on aquatic life. By one estimate, a single-use plastic, like a plastic straw or a Starbucks cup, is only used for about 15 minutes before it is thrown away. However, it can take between 450-1,000 years to decompose. These objects also pose more immediate threats to the sea creatures who eat them or get stuck in them.
Once we had agreed on a common these for our Design Sprint, we we needed to conduct interviews with a variety of students, teachers and researchers who could speak on this issue for the podcast. Through our friends at Earth Day Network and our Design for Change changemaking network, we were able to interview teachers from across North America, a researcher from Duke University, and student leaders from South Dakota to the United Kingdom.
While the voices came from a number of different places and ages, they had a lot in common. They had clear memories of an exact moment in time when they began to be passionate about this issue. It may have been an episode of Blue Planet, a video online or a trip to the beach. They could vividly recall where they were and how they felt when they realized the extent of the problem. They spoke with a shared sense of urgency yet evoked a spirit of optimism. The issue seemed large but not impossible.
One of the best parts of working on these sprints is the twists and turns it can take. You hear unexpected answers in interviews and come across guests you weren't planning on speaking with. As it turned out, one of the students we planned to interview had attended a march led by popular activist Greta Thunberg, so we made sure to include his voice and story in the episode.
Another theme that emerged was the power of youth voice. Our researcher, Dr. Liz Demattia of Duke University, shared the insight that children are more effective at changing their parents' minds on the subject than scientists. Well, it just so happened that we came across one such story during the recordings. While interviewing a young activist form the United Kingdom, Lucie Parsons, it came out that her dad, Daniel Parsons, is a researcher at Hull University in England, and was able to redirect some of the university's research to address environmental concerns in the wake of Lucie's activism.
We always highlight youth impact and youth voice in our sprints, but something felt different about this episode. The students spoke of breakthroughs so unique! Nina and Lucinda shared in a matter-of-fact manner about how they were going to speak to their city's Environmental Advisory Board about single-use plastics, and were planning on speaking with other city leaders, including the incoming mayor! Lucie Parsons, who started by organizing beach cleanups in her hometown, eventually addressed world leaders at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) conference, where her speech was complimented by a European Union commissioner.
When Greta Thunberg was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year mid-way through this project, it confirmed what we were finding throughout this sprint. Greta's story is only one of many, many stories of change happening all over the world in big and small ways - change that is being led by youth. She represents in a very real way the fact that the biggest leaders on issues are youth. They know the very real impact on their world and thinking about the future.
Now as our Plastic Pollution Design Sprint is published, not long before the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, it is exciting to think about the momentum this movement is gaining, the progress we will see in our lifetime, and the leaders who will help us get there. We wish to thank our friends at Earth Day Network for their essential help on this podcast and their continued work, and invite you to check out the story yourself.
Written by Podcast Producer, Ryan Cowden.